Canada and Quebec in June 2008: on the cusp.

Author:Jones, David T.
 
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Summary: As Canadians stand down from parliamentary politics throughout the country and prepare for their all-too-short summer, in many respects it is "the best of times." Canadian economics on federal and provincial levels would be the envy of virtually any government; the generations-old socio-political tensions between "Canada" and "Quebec" are in remission; and the most challenging foreign affairs concern (military action in Afghanistan) is largely off the stove following Tory-Liberal compromise in February. On the federal level, the parties will be maneuvering throughout the summer in what appears to be the run-up to a fall election. In Quebec the provincial Liberals have regained their "mojo" and may also be contemplating a trip to the polls.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has done the unexpected; he has managed to maneuver a minority in Parliament into two and a half years of governance. This accomplishment is both a remarkable success and a failure. The success is obvious (minorities usually last about a year, but he has out-maneuvered the opposition); the failure is more subtle (he has not generated enough popular support for the Tories to envision a majority).

First the failure. Canada is enjoying a "to die for" era of prosperity. The federal budget and all provincial budgets are balanced; the national debt is being paid down; inflation is low; unemployment remains close to record lows; taxes have been reduced; exports are rising steadily with Canadian energy reserves the most secure in the world so far as U.S. interests are concerned; and the Canadian dollar is trading roughly at par with the U.S. dollar--the strongest level in a generation. If "it's the economy, stupid" is an axiom that plays in Canada, the Tories should have a majority in the offing. Moreover, the generation-long existential question of Quebec's sovereignty movement is in remission; the Opposition Liberals have a leader perceived as weak; and Canada's most significant international issue, its military commitment in Afghanistan, was taken off the stove by a Tory-Liberal agreement in February that the military commitment would end in 2011. But the "numbers" haven't moved, and the Tories remain at essentially the same polling levels as they were in winning their minority in January 2006. It is a puzzlement to observers (not the least of them being the Tories), and several explanations are in play.

--The Problem Is Harper. The prime minister is remarkably capable; he is intelligent, self disciplined, and an exemplar of "family values." He reassembled much of the old Tory party, merging his original Reform party with remnant Tories and creating the Conservative Party of Canada that now governs. He effectively muted the most ostensibly scary, i.e., social conservative, elements of his caucus and has retained very tight control over the "message" delivered by government, reducing ministerial prerogatives and strengthening the prime minister's office. It is almost as if the NSC were running the USG.

-The result has been efficiency rather than lovability. Although personally personable, Harper is not warm and cuddly for media packaging and presentation. For some he has "assassin's eyes," and in the cut and thrust of "gotcha" parliamentary exchanges, he is more interested in dominance than in dialogue. Moreover, he has not healed an extended rupture with the parliamentary gallery media, virtually ignoring them and limiting his ministers and government staff to highly structured relations with the media. First the media was angry; but they have turned to getting even, with investigations (fostered and exploited by the Liberals) into charges of malfeasance and unethical conduct that drag down any Tory political momentum.

--The Problem Is Structure. To some extent, Harper's problems are self-imposed; he is what he is and will never play "hail fellow well met" roles. Although he has become more comfortable with the baby-kissing element of politics and has lost weight to assist in photo presentations (and presumably also for health), he is not a "natural." His ratings among women, who theoretically might find a good family man who has augmented home-based child care and emphasized law-and-order anti-crime legislation attractive, remain low. Moreover, he is limited by the quality of his caucus. The exigencies of parliamentary governance require selection from all regions of the country--and with rare exception ministers must be chosen from the elected Members of Parliament. For a caucus whose largest numbers and greatest talents come from Alberta (28 MPs), that means many who might be prominent in Cabinet had they been elected in Quebec languish in back-bench or subcabinet capacities.

As a consequence of misfits in portfolios, Canada has been treated to delights such as the dismissed-in-disgrace foreign minister Maxim Bernier (a Quebec Francophone) and his well-upholstered mistress; they gained international attention ostensibly when he left a classified briefing book in her apartment. More likely, Harper grew tired of Bernier's failure to master his briefs and displaying not just factual ignorance but undiplomatic honesty such as suggesting that an Afghan provincial governor should be replaced because he was corrupt--thereby ensuring his continuation in office to demonstrate Afghan independence. Bernier obviously should never have been placed in such a high visibility portfolio; however, politics directed a promotion for him after success in a second-tier ministry.

Consequently, Harper has appeared to be an alpha male surrounded by some nasty attack dogs who concentrate on kicking a rather feckless Opposition leader (Liberal Stephane Dion) and picking fights with the provinces, especially Ontario, that appear purely partisan at worst and unnecessary at best. The result has been that Harper has been his own flak catcher; while he gives better than he gets in vituperative exchanges, he doesn't look prime ministerial during or after the mud throwing.

--The Problem Is Systemic. Statistically, probably two-thirds of the Canadian electorate can be found to the left of center (including the Quebec sovereignist Bloc Quebecois); and the Liberals, the socialist New Democratic Party (NDP), and the Greens all contend for that segment of voters. Historically, the Liberals have been the most successful in this competition as reflected by the truism that the Liberals are Canada's "natural governing party." Still, it is a truism reinforced by the reality that Liberals governed Canada for much of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first until 2006. In political terms, however, it means that Tories govern only when the Liberals have totally exhausted their mandate, are immersed in economic hard times and/or a gag-a-goat scandal. The resulting Tory governance often reflects their inexperience in power, a tendency toward get-while-the-getting-is-good, four feet in...

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